A Study In Philosophy: The Medford School Board election

Candidates for contested seats have divergent views of how to improve the quality of education

Three of the seven seats on the Medford School Board are up for a vote in the May 21 election, with incumbents being challenged by newcomers dissatisfied with low graduation rates, instructional school days, high administrative costs and class sizes.

Medford is the largest school district in Jackson County, with 13,000 students and an annual budget of about $100 million.

Medford School Board Election

— Ballots for the May 21 special district election will be mailed today by the Jackson County Clerk's Office. They must be returned by 8 p.m. May 21 to be counted.

— See candidates' biographies and statements in the Voters' Pamphlet at www.mailtribune.com/2013voterspamphlet. If you have any questions about the election process, contact the Elections Office at 541-774-6148.

— Current school board members' terms:

Ending June 30, 2013: Paulie Brading, Tricia Prendergast, Jeff Thomas

Ending June 30, 2015: Sally Killen, Ron Andersen, Kim Wallan and Marlene Yesquen

School Board members serve a four-year term. The main responsibilities for the unpaid position are to hire the superintendent and set policy for the district with 19 schools.

Incumbents said they hope to be re-elected to maintain continuity and to execute programs they believe will improve test scores and graduation rates.

Challengers said that re-electing current members would not enact needed changes.

The state Department of Education released a report in January that 64 percent of the district's Class of 2012 graduated from high school in four years. This is below the state average.

Position 3 incumbent Tricia Prendergast defends the current board's accomplishments. She said the Professional Learning Communities model has provided training for teachers and administrators to work more closely with individual students, a goal candidates approve.

For English language learners who struggle to pass tests and graduate on time, there are new programs at several schools that include homework study nights.

To help special education students, a committee was set up last year to increase inclusion, involve parents more directly and train regular classroom teachers to work more effectively with these students, Prendergast said.

Prendergast, who has been on the board since 2001, is being challenged by Curt Ankerberg, Cheryl Dykes and Matt Gebhardt.

In statements made in the Voters' Pamphlet and in a meeting with the Mail Tribune editorial board, candidates said that Superintendent Phil Long needs to do a better job communicating with parents, teachers and the board.

"There is a lack of communication from the district, too much bureaucracy and an unwillingness to change things," said Gebhardt, an endodontist with four children.

"We need people on the board who have their pulse on the community and if we bring problems into the open, they can be resolved."

Members of the board are divided on Long's performance. His contract expires next year and the new board could decide whether it is renewed or a new superintendent is hired.

Candidates are divided on whether Central Medford High School — an alternative school with an 11 percent on-time graduation rate compared to South Medford High's 81 percent and North Medford High's 68 percent — should continue to serve 240 high-risk students.

More than half of Central's student body are seniors in their fourth, fifth, sixth and even seventh year.

"If we were flush with money we could keep Central," said Ankerberg, a certified public accountant. "But we have already burned through half of our $8 million reserves."

He said Central has become a school that accommodates students' schedules at the cost of the district and is a "poor investment" resulting in more overhead and staff costs.

"I feel sorry for the kids down on their luck, but if they really want an education, they can go to North or South," he said.

Gebhardt believes Central is an important resource. "What do you do with these kids? They need extra help," he said. "We need to help all the kids in the district. There are some that don't even have a home."

School safety is a top priority for Dykes, who worked for the school district for 25 years.

The district has changed access policies and installed safety equipment such as alarms. The proposed budget for 2013-14 is asking for more funds to upgrade fire alarms, install higher fences and other safety precautions.

Dykes, who said there has been a "deterioration of supervision" on campuses, would like to see fewer administrators and more teachers, teacher aides and campus monitors.

"Before you can educate a child you have to ensure they're safe," said Dykes, who said there could be two monitors watching 150 elementary students on a playground.

Most candidates approve of the on-campus relationships Medford Police Department officers have with students.

In Position 1, incumbent Paulie Brading, who has been a teacher and principal, said school safety is her top concern. She has attended monthly safety meetings with Medford Police School Security officers for five years.

"Gang activity is way down in our schools," said Brading, who added she has visited all 19 campuses.

She disagrees, however, with spending a half-million dollars on new entrances and erecting higher fences, saying those projects need to be scaled back. "We need to put the money into reducing class sizes and (hiring) teachers."

Position 1 challenger Nicole (Nikki) Milam is a parent and office secretary who graduated from North Medford High School. She said her priorities include smaller class sizes, which can be as high as 35 students or more, and ensuring that financial resources are allocated fairly.

She would like to see financial statements that itemize school district spending for all school sites.

"The community is ready for a change," she said. "As a parent just stepping into this, I have a lot to learn, but I have a lot to give."

Candidates agree that talks with the teachers' union should not result in fewer school days to save money.

Medford has 170 instructional school days, fewer than most districts but still satisfying the state's requirements.

Position 1 challenger Larry W. Nicholson, an insurance agent and cattle ranch owner, gained experience in labor negotiations when he served on the school board for eight years starting in 2003.

"Our funding situation needs to be looked at as the new normal," he stated.

He said tough choices have to be made, and although he would not reduce teachers' pay, he would freeze increases and discuss contribution reductions to pensions and health insurance benefits.

He thinks the current board is broken, and its behavior destructive to the district. He said he's a collaborator who listens to everyone at the table.

All candidates said they would like to invite more parents, businesses and community members to become involved in the schools, perhaps hiring volunteer coordinators.

"We have an achievement gap in our district," stated Position 2 incumbent Jeff Thomas, general manager of Connecting Point. "We need to work as a board but, more importantly, as a community to make sure every student receives the interventions they need."

Candidates said students would benefit from more time with teachers and other adults on campus.

Lisa McGowan, a mother and advocate for special needs children who is challenging Thomas in Position 2, stated that a board member needs to be a team player, support teachers and be a voice "that will advocate not only for our mainstream students, but also for those who are served by our special services."

McGowan declined to participate in a joint interview with Thomas.

Ballots are being mailed today and must be returned by 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 21.

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or jeastman@mailtribune.com.

The print version had the term incorrect as three years instead of four.


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